Publisher's note: The author of this post, Natalie Sayewich, is a contributor to ECU News Services.
For those struggling with addiction or who are in recovery, the holidays can be especially difficult. ECU experts share five tips for navigating the season in healthy ways. | Photo: Stock
Stress during the holiday season is common. Making long journeys to see family, feelings of obligation to give and receive gifts graciously and preparing meals and settings worthy of a celebration can all add a heightened sense of pressure for everyone. But for those struggling with addiction or who are in recovery, the holidays can be especially difficult, and the additional stress and temptation associated with the holiday season can trigger reuse or relapse.
Dr. Leigh Atherton
Dr. Ashley Britton
Dr. Leigh Atherton, an assistant professor in the Department of Addictions & Rehabilitation Studies, director of the master of science in clinical counseling program and coordinator of the substance abuse counseling certificate program in ECU's College of Allied Health Sciences; and Dr. Ashley Britton, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine at ECU's Brody School of Medicine offered the following tips for those struggling with addiction, for those in recovery and for their families and friends around the holidays:
1. Communicate in advance
The celebratory nature of holiday gatherings - often complete with boozy punch, eggnog or similar substances - can be problematic for those struggling with addiction or who are in recovery. Having an open conversation with family and friends can be a proactive way to address any concerns. Our experts advised that loved ones could consider making at least a portion of their celebrations alcohol-free so everyone can participate comfortably in that part of the day, perhaps parting ways afterward.
"Communication is probably the biggest advice I give: Not having resentment that your family or friends don't automatically do that, but also not feeling like you don't have the right to ask,"
Atherton said. "People don't ask because they feel like it should be assumed, or they don't ask because they don't want to be a bother or a problem holding the party back from other people. Open communication is usually the best way to have the best result in terms of family connectedness."
Britton agreed that communication is key.
"Remind family that the person is still in recovery and that they may need to limit their exposure,"
Britton said. "What happens a lot of times with the families of people who are in recovery, they think that since the person has been through treatment and is sober now, that they're 'fine' and don't realize how difficult of a situation it may be."
2. Find supporters and safe environments to lean on
"An important aspect of recovery is having that strong support, whether it is a sponsor or friends or family who are there for you and understand what you are going through and what you're struggling with,"
Britton said. "And you have to understand how much you are able to tolerate in those environments without a significant level of distress."
Atherton advised those in recovery to look for or plan events that won't cause additional stress.
"Finding a safe place, and peers that they interact with (are important),"
Atherton said. "Planning events to go to or planning things to do that are pro-social and also conducive to recovery for them - sober events. Reaching out if they do mutual help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous."
3. Know your triggers and avoid them, if possible
Understanding the events, people or places that might be problematic and trigger reuse or relapse is key.
"The person in recovery needs to be very aware and mindful of what their triggers are and avoid those,"
Britton said. "Even if it is just going back home and being around certain people or having reminders of places they used to go to get drunk or get high, or whatever the case may be.
"If they are absolutely not able to avoid them, then having that sponsor or support person that they can talk to and then ultimately removing themselves from temptation. The sobriety part is the most important part. So, rather than agonizing about being in an environment that jeopardizes their recovery, being OK with 'This is not a safe place for me. I came and I showed my face, but I can't be here.'"
4. Make a plan for unexpected stress
Added stress surrounding the holidays can sometimes catch people off-guard, and it's important to recognize that the holidays can present these additional challenges and to have a plan in place ahead of time to deal with stress in healthy ways.
"Making sure they go to meetings during that time or reaching out to sponsors or peers that are supportive of their recovery (is helpful),"
Atherton said. "Things that they would do day-to-day, but just being extra vigilant during the holidays. Some people feel 'I'm doing well, I'm doing good, I haven't wanted to use lately,' but then the holidays come, and they're unsuspectingly overwhelmed by those feelings."
5. Find ways to memorialize lost loved ones and relationships
Because the holidays often signify time spent with loved ones, for some they can also be a painful reminder of grief and loss.
"Whether it's through death or broken relationships, holidays tend to bring that out as well,"
Atherton said. "If an individual knows that's a pattern or something that comes up during the holidays, finding a way to celebrate or memorialize that relationship in a way that is positive and joyous can be productive.
"It's 'what can we do as a family to celebrate or memorialize that person?' as opposed to it going unstated because nobody wants to be the one to bring it up, and then it festers within people,"
he said. "So, being more intentional with finding a way to make it a celebration instead of giving a negative tone to it."